Schism & Heresy:
Definition of Terms:
A disregard for authority and promotion of false teachings will, by nature, disrupt unity and create division in a community, something which is inherently at odds with the Triune God. The Church established by Christ, however, was to be of one mind and in full accord (Phil. 1:27, 2:2). In John 17:20-23, Christ prays for future believers that they “may become perfectly one.” The early Church emphasized the importance of discernment, remaining rooted in sound doctrine, and guarding against doctrines that contradict the core teachings of the Christian faith. The Bible gives several warnings against false teachings and division;
- Galatians 1:8-9: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” This passage emphasizes the seriousness of preaching a distorted or false gospel.
- 2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” It warns about the presence of false teachers who introduce destructive heresies.
- 1 Timothy 4:1: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” This verse highlights the potential for people to deviate from the true faith by embracing deceptive teachings.
The inclusion of gentiles in the early Church caused a schism between Jewish Christians who believed gentile converts should be required to keep the Mosaic Law and those who did not. The matter would ultimately require a declaration by the Apostles based on the decision made at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Based on Peter’s advice, the Council came to a decision which it considered binding on all Christians, for Christ Himself said; “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18). Because the Church, led by the Apostles, made an official ruling on the matter that was binding on all Christians, those who continued in willful opposition to this decree became known as the first great heresy, the Judaizers, from the Koine Greek word Ἰουδαΐζειν (Ioudaizein), found in the Galatians 2:14.
The early Church was quick to recognize divergent groups and unorthodox teachings and thus differentiate them from the Catholic Church. Ignatius of Antioch is the earliest known Church Father to use the world “Catholic” to distinguish the universal church found throughout the world from local sects that cropped up expressing divergent doctrines, acts of worship, or new authorities. The use of the word heresy was given wide currency by Irenaeus in his 2nd-century work Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) where he described the traditional beliefs and doctrines handed on by the apostles as orthodox (from ὀρθός, orthos, “straight” or “correct” + δόξα, doxa, “belief”).
The early church faced various heresies, which prompted theological debates and councils within the early church as leaders sought to define and defend orthodox Christian doctrine. The Church Fathers, prominent theologians and leaders of the early Christian Church, played a crucial role in addressing and refuting heresies. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century): Irenaeus combated Gnosticism and wrote extensively against its teachings, emphasizing the importance of apostolic tradition and the unity of the Church. Athanasius of Alexandria (4th century) vigorously defended the orthodox doctrine of the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity against Arianism. Augustine of Hippo (4th-5th century) addressed various heresies, including Pelagianism, which denied the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of divine grace for salvation.
In order to identify heresies and differentiate them from each other, they were named either after their founder or by their distinctive doctrines. Early heresies such as Judaizers, Gnosticism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, and Iconoclasm are all examples of heresies named after their doctrines, while Marcionism, Sabellianism, Novationism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism are all examples of heresies named after their founders. Modern Protestant denominations follow this same pattern, with Lutheranism being named after Martin Luther while Seventh Day Adventists worship on the seventh day (Saturday).
Schisms are distinguished from heresies in that a schism does not generally involve great differences in beliefs or doctrines, but is rather a split or division in authority. Over time bodies broke off from the Catholic Church because they did not agree with its beliefs, or did not worship as it did, or would not recognize its authority. They became new and different churches. They ceased to be the Catholic Church. The first schism to take place was the Assyrian Church after the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Later schisms include the Oriental Orthodox Church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D. between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Among the Jews, exclusion from the synagogue was a real excommunication (Esd., x, 8). This was the exclusion feared by the parents of the man born blind (John, ix, 21 sq.; cf. xii, 42; xvi, 2). Christ commanded His Church to institute the practice: “And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican” (Matt., xviii, 17) and: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt., xviii, 18; of. xvi, 19), which not only refers to the remission of sins, but also judicial and penal sanctions. Excommunication would be put into practice by Paul when, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, he would excommunicate the incestuous Corinthian, who then, after repenting, is readmitted
(2 Corinthians 2:5-11), and also the incorrigible blasphemers whom he delivered over to Satan (I Tim., i, 20).
The primary, but not exclusive, purpose of excommunication is medicinal, or in breaking contumacy [stubbornness], or contempt of Church authority, and reintegrating the offender within the community. In contrast, expiatory penalties such as deprivation of office primarily envision restoring justice and repairing the ecclesial damage done by the offender. Excommunication does not mean that one is “kicked out of the Church”, but rather is a censure by which one is excluded from the communion of the faithful.
The excommunicated person, being excluded from the society of the Church, still bears the indelible mark of Baptism and is subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. In other words, excommunicates remain bound by ecclesiastical obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy. This does not deprive a person of the common spiritual prayers of the Church, but they are excluded from engaging in certain activities (listed in Canon 1331 §1) and are prohibited from any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship; celebrating or receiving the sacraments; or exercising any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions.
Excommunication is practiced by all of the ancient churches including the Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodox churches and the Eastern Orthodox churches. It is also practiced in varying degrees by other denominations, especially early Protestant traditions, such as Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Anabaptist traditions. In the Catholic Church, there are currently two types of excommunication: latae sententiae excommunication, which takes place automatically upon the commission of a particular crime, and ferendae sententiae excommunication, which is imposed after the bishop has warned a person but he keeps offending anyway. Excommunication can be lifted by a declaration of repentance, profession of the Creed (if the offense involved heresy), or renewal of obedience (if the offense was an act of schism) by the excommunicated person.
A Note on Schism & valid Holy Orders:
The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Holy Orders within the Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, and Oriental Orthodox Churches due to their historical apostolic succession, which traces back through generations of bishops to the apostles. Since these churches have preserved this apostolic succession, the Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of their ordinations and sacraments, including the ordination of priests. Despite this recognition, full communion with the Catholic Church is not established due to existing schisms with the Pope.
In contrast, the Catholic Church declared Anglican orders “null and void” in 1896 through the papal bull “Apostolicae Curae” due to concerns about the validity of the Anglican ordination rite introduced during the English Reformation. The Anglican ordination rite deviated significantly from the traditional Catholic rite, raising questions about the essential form and intention required for valid sacraments.
During the English Reformation, King Henry VIII separated from the Pope and established the Church of England. The bishops of the Church of England at this time, although they were in schism with the Pope, still maintained valid orders for ordaining new priests. King Edward VI, however, was heavily influenced by Calvinism and introduced changes to the ordination rite. Pope Leo XIII cited two principal arguments in “Apostolicae Curae” against the validity of the Edwardian Ordinal (the first new rite of ordination approved after the split with Rome).
Firstly, the intentional omission of language referring to the sacrificial priesthood as understood by the Catholic Church in the Anglican ordination rite was considered problematic. Secondly, defects in intention were revealed by the omissions in the rite, affecting the continuity of apostolic succession. Because of these significant deviations in form and intention from the traditional Catholic rite, the Catholic Church concluded that the Anglican ordinations lacked validity. Subsequent Anglican priests, therefore, were not true priests who could validly absolve sins or confect the Eucharist.
In 1966, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established to explore areas of agreement and theological dialogue between the two traditions. However, Anglicans changed their theology of orders once again by ordaining women in the 1970s. Clarifying the Church’s position on the matter, Pope St. John Paul II declared in 1994 that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” to ordain women to the priesthood (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
The Gospel of Matthew 18:17
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The Gospel of Matthew 24:10-13
Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
2 Peter 2:1:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
1 Timothy 4:1:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”
1 Corinthians 1:10
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Hebrews 13:7-9, 17
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings;
2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
1 Timothy 3:15
But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.
2 Peter 1:20
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
2 Peter 3:15-16
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
Church Father Quotes:
“Be not deceived, my brethren: If anyone follows a maker of schism [i.e., is a schismatic], he does not inherit the kingdom of God; if anyone walks in strange doctrine [i.e., is a heretic], he has no part in the passion [of Christ]. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3–4:1 [A.D. 110]).
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes [John 1:9]. Those, therefore, who lived according to reason [Greek, logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them. . . . Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason [logos] were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason [logos], whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason [logos] are Christians. Such as these can be confident and unafraid” (First Apology 46 [A.D. 151]).
“In the Church God has placed apostles, prophets, teachers, and every other working of the Spirit, of whom none of those are sharers who do not conform to the Church, but who defraud themselves of life by an evil mind and even worse way of acting. Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Against Heresies 3:24:1 [A.D. 189]).
“[The spiritual man] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For they can bring about no ‘reformation’ of enough importance to compensate for the evil arising from their schism” (ibid., 4:33:7–8).
“If someone from this people wants to be saved, let him come into this house so that he may be able to attain his salvation. . . . Let no one, then, be persuaded otherwise, nor let anyone deceive himself: Outside of this house, that is, outside of the Church, no one is saved; for, if anyone should go out of it, he is guilty of his own death” (Homilies on Joshua 3:5 [A.D. 250]).
“Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress [a schismatic church] is separated from the promises of the Church, nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. . . . He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 6, 1st ed. [A.D. 251]).
“Let them not think that the way of life or salvation exists for them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since the Lord says in the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And any man who has the insolence to refuse to listen to the priest or judge, whoever he may be in those days, that man shall die’ [Deut. 17:12]. And then, indeed, they were killed with the sword . . . but now the proud and insolent are killed with the sword of the Spirit, when they are cast out from the Church. For they cannot live outside, since there is only one house of God, and there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church” (Letters 61:4 [A.D. 253]).
“When we say, ‘Do you believe in eternal life and the remission of sins through the holy Church?’ we mean that remission of sins is not granted except in the Church” (ibid., 69:2 [A.D. 253]).
“Peter himself, showing and vindicating the unity, has commanded and warned us that we cannot be saved except by the one only baptism of the one Church. He says, ‘In the ark of Noah a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Similarly, baptism will in like manner save you” [1 Peter 3:20-21]. In how short and spiritual a summary has he set forth the sacrament of unity! In that baptism of the world in which its ancient wickedness was washed away, he who was not in the ark of Noah could not be saved by water. Likewise, neither can he be saved by baptism who has not been baptized in the Church” (ibid., 73:11).
“[O]utside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, sound faith moreover cannot exist, not alone among heretics, but even among those who are established in schism” (Treatise on Rebaptism 10 [A.D. 256]).
“It is, therefore, the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. . . . Whoever does not enter there or whoever does not go out from there, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. . . . Because, however, all the various groups of heretics are confident that they are the Christians and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, let it be known that this is the true Church, in which there is confession and penance and which takes a health-promoting care of the sins and wounds to which the weak flesh is subject” (Divine Institutes 4:30:11–13 [A.D. 307]).
“Heretics bring sentence upon themselves since they by their own choice withdraw from the Church, a withdrawal which, since they are aware of it, constitutes damnation. Between heresy and schism there is this difference: that heresy involves perverse doctrine, while schism separates one from the Church on account of disagreement with the bishop. Nevertheless, there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church” (Commentary on Titus 3:10–11 [A.D. 386]).
“We believe also in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church. For heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God; and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor” (Faith and the Creed 10:21 [A.D. 393]).
“I do not hesitate to put the Catholic catechumen, burning with divine love, before a baptized heretic. Even within the Catholic Church herself we put the good catechumen ahead of the wicked baptized person . . . For Cornelius, even before his baptism, was filled up with the Holy Spirit [Acts 10:44–48], while Simon [Magus], even after his baptism, was puffed up with an unclean spirit [Acts 8:13–19]” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists4:21).
“The apostle Paul said, ‘As for a man that is a heretic, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him’ [Titus 3:10]. But those who maintain their own opinion, however false and perverted, without obstinate ill will, especially those who have not originated the error of bold presumption, but have received it from parents who had been led astray and had lapsed . . . those who seek the truth with careful industry and are ready to be corrected when they have found it, are not to be rated among heretics” (Letters 43:1 [A.D. 412]).
“Whoever is separated from this Catholic Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ, no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living, shall not have life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (ibid., 141:5).
“Anyone who receives the sacrament of baptism, whether in the Catholic Church or in a heretical or schismatic one, receives the whole sacrament; but salvation, which is the strength of the sacrament, he will not have, if he has had the sacrament outside the Catholic Church [and remains in deliberate schism]. He must therefore return to the Church, not so that he might receive again the sacrament of baptism, which no one dare repeat in any baptized person, but so that he may receive eternal life in Catholic society, for the obtaining of which no one is suited who, even with the sacrament of baptism, remains estranged from the Catholic Church” (The Rule of Faith 43 [A.D. 524]).
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer & Founder of the Calvinist Reformed Evangelical Tradition
His complaints about factionalism and “denominations” were as follows: “Every state [of life] has its own Gospel, which they forge for themselves according to their appetites, so that there is as great a diversity between the Gospel of the court, and the Gospel of the justices and lawyers, and the Gospel of merchants, as there is between coins of different denominations.” -John Calvin’s short work Advertissement contre l’astrologie 1549.
“Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.” –Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111.
“I am persuaded that it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner.” – Calvin’s letter to Farel on 24 July (for more words directly from Calvin’s pen, read Selected Works of John Calvin)
When Jacques Gruet, a theologian with differing views, placed a letter in Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite, he was arrested, tortured for a month and beheaded on July 26, 1547. Gruet’s own theological book was later found and burned along with his house while his wife was thrown out into the street to watch.
Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, physician, scientist and Bible scholar, suffered a worse fate. He was Calvin’s longtime acquaintance who resisted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he angered Calvin by returning a copy of Calvin’s Institutes with critical comments in the margins. So what did Calvin do? You can read his resolution from a personal letter he wrote to a friend:
“Servetus offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” – Letter to Farel, 13 February 1546
The next time Servetus attended Calvin’s Sunday preaching service on a visit, Calvin had him arrested and charged with heresy. The 38 official charges included rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism. The city magistrates condemned him to death. Calvin pleaded for Servetus to be beheaded instead of the more brutal method of burning at the stake, but to no avail.
On October 27, 1553, green wood was used for the fire so Servetus would be slowly baked alive from the feet upward. For 30 minutes he screamed for mercy and prayed to Jesus as the fire worked its way up his body to burn the theology book strapped to his chest as a symbol of his heresy. Calvin summarized the execution this way:
“Servetus . . . suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies?” – Calvin
How could such torture be condoned? In November 1552 the Geneva Council declared Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to be a “holy doctrine which no man might speak against.” Disagreeing with Calvin’s view of God was a violation warranting the death penalty according to the way John Calvin interpreted Leviticus 24:16. The Geneva city council records describe one verdict where a man who publicly protested against John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was flogged at all the city’s main intersections and then expelled (“The Minutes Book of the Geneva City Council, 1541-59,” translated by Stefan Zweig, Erasmus: The Right to Heresy). You did not get to disagree with Calvin in this town.
John Calvin argued:
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, knowingly and willingly incur their guilt. It is not human authority that speaks, it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church.”